Shorebirds nest on shifting sands, so do not disturb
As I See It
Friday, April 02, 2010
Media contact: Chairman Rodney Barreto
The area of the beach cordoned off with signs or
sticks connected by twine marked with flagging is not a crime
scene. It is where shorebirds are nesting. Think of the temporary
fencing as a "Do not disturb" sign.
Birds, of course, don't recognize roped-off areas
as safe zones. They forage for food and this time of year lay eggs
in open, sandy areas, where people usually walk, throw Frisbees,
fly kites or even drive beach-cleaning vehicles. When young birds
crack out of their eggs and start scampering across the sand, they,
too, are vulnerable to crushing by unobservant people's feet, dogs
So I urge beachgoers to be alert while shorebirds
and seabirds are nesting. Many species are threatened, including
the least tern, black skimmer, American oystercatcher and some
plovers. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's
(FWC) biologists and volunteers have been marking off nesting
areas, but it's an ongoing process, as birds come and go, selecting
new spots. That's why we must be vigilant, particularly now.
Florida's spring break "season" isn't over yet, and
state residents and tourists are capitalizing on warmer weather and
heading to beaches, right at the peak of shorebird nesting season.
According to VisitFlorida.com, the top activity for tourists is
going to the state's inviting beaches. That means most of the 42
million tourists here just from January to June will be on the
beach at some point. That's a lot of foot traffic where birds might
Another reason we must watch out for the little
eggs and chicks is habitat loss. There are fewer suitable places
for them to nest. Competition by nonnative species and pollution
already threaten hundreds of species of migratory birds, the U.S.
Department of the Interior's Secretary Ken Salazar noted in his
"State of the Birds" report issued in early March.
Climate change is the new threat. According to
Salazar's report, the fact that nearly a third of the nation's 800
bird species are endangered, threatened or in significant decline
is testament to the need for a plan of action.
The concern that climate change could dramatically
alter shorebirds' habitat and food supply and push many species
toward extinction isn't just one agency's opinion. Experts from the
nation's leading conservation organizations and the U.S. Fish and
Wildlife Service share information that shaped Salazar's analysis.
As a member of the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, the
FWC-supplied data became part of the analysis, and the FWC
certainly hopes it will be part of the solution.
One of the findings from the report is that oceanic
birds are the most vulnerable species because they don't raise many
young each year. Also, "they face challenges from a rapidly
changing marine ecosystem; and they nest on islands that may be
flooded as sea levels rise," the report notes.
Look at Florida's beaches. They're very narrow
strips of sand already vulnerable to wave erosion, and currents
constantly scour and reform our 663 miles of beaches. This shifting
sand is a favorite place for nesting shorebirds.
Big-beaked oystercatchers usually nest in shallow
depressions scraped out of the sand. The best places to spot them
are around Apalachicola Bay, Cedar Key and Tampa Bay. Black
skimmers and least terns nest in colonies, also in simple scrapes
in open sand. Black skimmers, found on Gulf and Atlantic coasts,
are a species of special concern. All are vulnerable to
The least tern lays eggs from mid-April in South
Florida to the beginning of May to the north. The eggs don't hatch
until 21 days later and, although the young leave the nest in a few
days, they can't fly to safety for another three weeks. As you can
see, if we interrupt shorebirds' courtship and mating rituals, or
their month-and-a-half-long hatching and fledging process, we're
reducing opportunities for their long-term survival.
The FWC is working with communities and other
agencies to ensure the survival of shorebirds. For instance, it is
developing an educational pilot program for Pinellas County to
address the fact that least terns have taken to nesting on flat
roofs, especially gravel ones. The program seeks common ground
between conservationists and property owners.
So next time you are enjoying the scenery along
Florida's beaches, also look down and watch your step; keep your
eyes peeled for little eggs resting on the sand and for bird
activity. Resist the temptation to run toward a flock of birds to
get them to take wing for that great photo opportunity. You
wouldn't like it if an elephant came running toward you just to see
you flee. And keep your dog on a leash if you're visiting a beach
that allows pets.
These simple precautions are the least we can do
for our feathered friends who share the beach with us. Give them
space and do not disturb them.
more about shorebirds, go to MyFWC.com/Wildlife and click on